Jews Moving Back Up to the Heights

Washington Heights and Inwood has seen a Jewish population revival in recent years. Here, an Orthodox Jewish man walks down Fort Washington Avenue. (Photo by Joshua Rotbert, Creative Commons license)

An Orthodox Jewish man walks down Fort Washington Avenue. Washington Heights and Inwood in Upper Manhattan have seen a Jewish population revival in recent years. (Photo by Joshua Rotbert, Creative Commons license)

A burgeoning Jewish community is once again sprouting in Upper Manhattan. The area has seen a nearly 150 percent increase in its Jewish population in the last decade or so.

Over 50 years ago, Inwood and Washington Heights housed a large population of Jews, many of whom had fled the Holocaust. After years of dwindling numbers that began in the 1960s, the two neighborhoods are seeing a reemergence, finds The Jewish Week in an article by Steve Lipman.

The numbers jump has expedited in recent years to the point that the neighborhoods have become “one of the hottest Jewish [real estate] markets of the decade.”

Noticing that young people starting families drive much of this growth, the Jewish philanthropy organization UJA-Federation of New York recently announced it will give out grants to programs in the neighborhoods aimed at families with small kids. Community leaders also note the influx of young families.

Residents and Jewish leaders there tell of burgeoning demand for playgroups, nursery school programs, day care and after-school programs. They tell of parks crowded with young Jewish families on Shabbat afternoons, of Jewish residents moving into apartments on the far west side of Broadway. The YM & YWHA of Washington Heights & Inwood recently hired an additional full-time youth worker.

The mostly working- and middle-class neighborhoods have a large Dominican population with other ethnicities moving in more recently. When it comes to Jewish life, the area is divided into two primary sections that center around iconic community institutions: Yeshiva University, founded in 1886, and “the Y” started in 1917 as one of the first Jewish community centers in the city.

(…) The Heights has two Jewish areas: on the east, the blocks surrounding the Centrist Orthodox Yeshiva University, and on the west, where the Y stands. The two areas (the bulk of the shuls are on the east side) are separated by what residents call “The Valley,” the low-lying section dominated by Broadway’s strip of bodegas and ethnic restaurants.

The UJA-Federation’s “Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011” described the population growth in the two neighborhoods as “an exponential increase.” It went on to say:

“Washington Heights/Inwood has experienced the fourth-largest absolute population increase (12,600) and the largest proportional increase in its Jewish population — growing 144% since 2002,” the recent study stated. The UJA-Federation study estimated the neighborhoods’ Jewish population at 23,700, up from 9,700 in 2002.

“It’s already an old number,” says Martin Englisher, longtime executive vice president of the Y. He says the current figure now approaches 26,000. “Every day I get calls about people moving in.” Among the newcomers are some Israeli and Soviet emigrés, and a growing number of people in the LGBT community.

The revival, according to residents, is attributed to “the results of mayoral crime-reduction policies.” According to NYPD statistics, street crime decreased by 80 or 90 percent.

Signs like the founding of the Inwood Jews outreach organization, new family-oriented offerings at the Y, and increasing membership at local Jewish centers indicate the increasing population trends. However, when it comes to serving the Jewish community, one area is lacking. The rapidity in which the population grew in a small period of time can perhaps be visible in the area’s relatively limited edible offerings, which has not yet kept up with the “exponential increase” of Jewish residents. But that’s no “deterrent,” says one local.

A caveat: smaller congregations have not benefited from the revival, and there’s still no kosher butcher, Judaica store or kosher bakery in the area.

While supermarkets offer a full range of kosher items, and liquor stores offer a modest selection of kosher wines, the neighborhoods’ only kosher restaurants are across The Valley on the YU side. That has not been a deterrent, says David Libchaber, a native of France who has lived in Washington Heights 11 years.

“Aside from eating out, you can definitely lead a Jewish life,” says Libchaber, who was leader of a group of parents who began leading children’s services at the Fort Tryon Jewish Center seven years ago and now serves as the congregation’s president.

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